I’m a day late, but here I am Taking Back the Blog. Today’s rant: the passive voice.
When it comes to reports of men abusing and oppressing women, the passive voice prevails.
Women are discriminated against
Women are paid less
Women are objectified
Women are groped
Women are sexually harrassed
Women are exploited
Women are threatened
Women are assaulted
Women are abused
Women are raped
No big deal, right? It’s just a bit of linguistic flipping, with neutral semantic effect, surely? No. This ostensibly innocent bit of subject-camouflage has real consequences. If you can’t see it, you can’t fight it, and you can’t blame it. The perpetrators of violence are rendered invisible. The culprits are shoved beyond the frame.
When someone is hurt, the first thing people do is look for someone to blame. When the perpetrator subject is veiled in this narrative sleight-of-hand, the free-floating responsibility seems to find somewhere to land. In the case of gendered injury, all too often, people slap this blame onto the object.
The “raped woman”.
The verb “rape” attaches to the object, and in the logical next step, is even adjectivised. “Raped” morphs smoothly from a descriptor of an actively committed crime to an attribute of the victim. And so, you end up with BBC headlines like this one:
“… these women are behaving irresponsibly and putting themselves at risk of being sexually assaulted or raped.”
UCLA researchers found that agent (subject) deletion in reports of sexual violence has three outcomes:
(a) it minises the perception of the agent;
(b) it alters the attribution of blame; and
(c) it alters the attribution of harm.
“When men read rape and battery stories written in the passive voice, they attributed less blame to the perpetrator – and less harm to the victim – than for the active-voice versions. The effect was specific to sexual violence: verb voice did not alter how men viewed murders or robberies.”
Rapist-deletion and raped-adjectivisation keeps the “raped woman” at the centre of the rape narrative. Abuse and rape becomes something that is about women, and women alone. It’s a short hop from there to victim-blaming. Before long, you get asshats flailing about women “turning themselves into victims” or deliberately adopting a “victim mentality”, as in the case of the intertubes fallout after someone terrorised tech blogger Kathy Sierra with rape and murder threats. Sierra was re-abused, over and over, for not “being responsible”. For not filtering her email, for not “taking it like a man”, for daring to be a woman in a man’s world, for using her real name, and above all, for “letting herself” be a victim. Yes, she did it to herself, apparently. The abuser was summarily disappeared, and who fell into his empty subject position? The abused woman, of course. Twisty sums up:
“Thus, even some feminists think we ought to criticize Kathy Sierra for not taking her reaming like a man. We recognize that victimhood does not equal personhood, but beyond that we’re constrained by some dim twilight denial. We can’t believe, even though it is true, that victimhood the only available outcome, so we say insane things like, “don’t act like a victim, you idiot!”
Kathy Sierra was threatened for the crime of Writing While Female (have I mentioned yet that you should be reading Kate Harding?), just as women and girls everywhere are abused, raped and killed for the crime of Being Female In Public, Being Female In Their Own Home, or Being a Female Child. What we need to re-introduce to the conversation is the reality that someone is doing the threatening, the abusing, the raping, the killing.
So – what does it look like when we re-reveal the subjects in discourse around gendered violence? How difficult is it to flip the words back to Subj-V-Obj position? How does this feel for you, as a reader? I pulled this International Women’s Day letter out of Hansard.
“For many of us, what some women across the world are subjected to or forced to do, simply because of their gender, is incomprehensible. […]
World wide, a quarter of all women are raped during their lifetime and, in a number of countries, women who have been raped are sometimes killed by their own family to preserve the family’s honour. Depending on the country, 25 to 75 per cent of women are regularly beaten at home and more than 120 million girls and women have undergone female genital mutilation. […]
The report says that, out of three girls sitting in classrooms worldwide learning to read and write, one will suffer violence directed at her simply because she is female. […]
Of three women sitting in a market, selling their crops, one will be attacked-most likely by her intimate partner-and hurt so severely she may no longer be able to provide for her family. […]
Throughout the world, this violence will be repeated: Globally, one in three women will be raped, beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused in her lifetime.[…]
In fact, in the ACT, women are overwhelmingly the majority of victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. Statistics show that one in three women over the age of 45 has experienced domestic violence and 86 per cent of all reported sexual assaults during 2001 were perpetrated against women.”
Anyone want to have a go re-activising this litany of terror? Let me know how it feels to read the version with the subjects restored.
 Syntax, Semantics, and Sexual Violence: Agency and the Passive Voice
Nancy M Henley et al
Journal of Language and Social Psychology, Vol. 14, No. 1-2, 60-84 (1995)
Summary at Psychology Today